Students learn to speak Latin, ‘the un-dead language’
ARLINGTON — The Roman gladiators entered the cafeteria in a single-file line, thumping elongated cardboard tubes against duct-taped cardboard shields. They wore helmets, wrist cuffs, shin protectors.
“Sanguinem!” the eighth-grade spectators chanted from the sidelines, pounding the tables. Blood!
The annual gladiator battle at Ottoson Middle School is not only about whacking enemies with recyclable swords. It’s also about bringing a supposedly dead language to life by doing something unheard-of in Latin classes of the past: speaking it.
In schools across Massachusetts and the country, teachers are throwing out the memorized charts of verb conjugations and noun declensions that were once essential to a Latin education, and instead emphasizing the spoken word. The goal is to make Latin more inclusive and more engaging for kids in 2019.
About 20,500 students statewide study Latin, the third-most popular language after Spanish and French, according to The National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report. It might seem strange that students are still signing up, but Latin teachers have a way of illuminating the language’s charms: It is the foundation of fields from medicine to music to poetry, and it offers a portal to 2,000 years of history and literature.
Studying Latin “broadens the mind, gives students the opportunity to see things from a different perspective, teaches them a history that is different from their own, and opens up avenues for their curiosity and imagination,” wrote Christina Kraus, a professor of Latin at Yale.
For the past 150 years, Latin was taught with a hard focus on grammar and translation (“I love the periphrastic,” one teacher said wistfully, referring to a passive construction in Latin that expresses an obligation like “ought”). Before that, spoken Latin was the norm in classrooms, according to Diane Anderson, a lecturer in classics at UMass Boston. Over the years, grammar-focused Latin gained a reputation for being stuffy and exclusive.
The “living Latin” movement aims to excise the stuffiness and bring the language to a wider audience.
It’s based on the idea that people learn language best by hearing it and by reading things they understand. Memorizing the rules of grammar doesn’t matter as much.
“Second language acquisition is effortless and totally unconscious,” said John Bracey, a Latin teacher at Belchertown High School who counts himself as one of a small number of black Latin teachers in the country. “It’s an involuntary, bodily function. Your brain will acquire language under the right circumstances.”
That means anyone can learn Latin, not just the kid who is great at memorizing or has a knack for intricate grammar rules. Students will learn grammar implicitly, but not through memorization.
At East Boston High, the majority of Holly Russo’s Latin students are bilingual, speaking both English and Spanish. Having learned English as a second language is an advantage in a living Latin classroom, she said, while it might be a detriment under a more traditional curriculum where students must translate everything into English.
“The goal is for the students to be able to understand the language via the language itself, rather than getting them to understand it by translating it to another language,” Russo said.
At the Ottoson School, Latin teacher Abbi Holt knew that her students were immersed in fantasy outside the classroom, reading the Percy Jackson novels, “larping,” or live-action role playing with costumes and swords, and joining anime club. Holt saw ancient Rome as another fantasy world that her students could explore intellectually.
“Latin is really good for the ones who are really questing and imaginative,” she said.
Holt switched to teaching fully immersive Latin this year, using the spoken language as a way to delve into the fantasy, and fun, of ancient Rome. A clock in her classroom tracks how long she and the students can speak exclusively in Latin. Interspersed between the conversations are lively activities, including a Harry Potter duel with spells and counterspells hurled in Latin and a cooking project with authentic Roman food.
“It gets me more engaged than if I was just in a classroom learning it,” said Aiden Klein-Taylor, 13, a larper who won the gladiator competition.
Living Latin has been slowly spreading throughout the classics world. The University of Massachusetts Boston hosts an immersive “conventiculum” every year for teachers and scholars who want to spend a week speaking Latin exclusively; similar programs have popped up around the country. (They’ve introduced some new words: telephonum for phone, rete omnium gentium for Internet, ludus canistrifollis for basketball.)
For scholars who learned Latin the traditional way, these immersive conferences can be jolting.
“The first two or three days, they’re quite tongue-tied,” said Anderson, who helps run the summer conventiculum in Boston. She had studied Latin for 30 years before attending her first immersion course and acknowledged she was afraid to suddenly speak the language she thought she knew so well.
After spending a week communicating in Latin, though, Anderson returned to the ancient manuscripts she studies and found that her comprehension had dramatically improved. Living Latin isn’t really about speaking, she said; instead, it’s about learning holistically, and ultimately bringing new understanding to ancient texts.
But some teachers fear that students who learn Latin solely through speaking, without a grammar background like Anderson’s, won’t be able to engage with classic texts. In Holt’s classroom, for example, the students read novellas written in basic Latin.
“You need a grammar-intensive approach,” said Theresa Raymond, who attended Girls’ Latin School (now Boston Latin Academy) and taught Latin for more than 40 years in the Boston area.
In her view, the purpose of studying Latin is to be able to read ancient texts — her classes translated Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption at Mt. Vesuvius and Cicero on just wars. “You’re not going to get them to that level by teaching them to ask if they can go to use the bathroom or whatever.”
Raymond recalled visiting a living Latin class where the teacher spoke in sentences riddled with grammatical errors, and insisted that all that mattered was hearing the language.
“But they’re hearing it wrong!” Raymond said. “I think we can make it accessible to all without watering it down.”
At the Boston Latin School, where students are required to take at least three years of Latin, roughly a quarter of the 15 Latin teachers have dabbled in spoken Latin, according to Michael Howard, a teacher there, but the grammar-focused approach remains dominant.
The students at Ottoson in Arlington don’t know what a declension is, and they probably won’t be able to speedily translate Pliny’s letter into English. But they can speak and understand basic Latin, something their predecessors, and many of their teachers’ peers, cannot do.
In the Ottoson cafeteria, Philip Watson, 13, had duct-taped a prayer written in Latin directly to his forearm, which he translated roughly as, “Oh you are so smart, can you grant me swiftness, and in return I will give you iron.” (His chosen god was Vulcan, an ironsmith.)
When his cardboard tube broke, his classmates shouted “Neca!” (Kill!) with passion, and soon he was just another fallen gladiator, crumpled on the field.
Alexandria Miettinen-Garrett, 13, fared better, making it to one of the final rounds. Her face gleamed with sweat from her last fight.
“We are the unique language,” she said, “the un-dead language.”